Vaclav Havel’s high moral purpose

Vaclav Havel died this weekend. Playright, dissident, poet, and Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president,  Havel’s activisim helped to bring down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The hope and expectations for his presidency were enormous.

Inspired with high moral purpose, Havel found the art of politics difficult. His proposals were often defeated in the new Parliament. Three years later, he was not re-elected and the political party he had founded was voted out. Czechoslovakia then became two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, something Havel was vehemently against. Though he was elected twice more as president of the Czech Republic, he was no longer the favored leader he once was, losing popularity and being accused by critics as being naive, especially around his notions of morality in politics.

However, Havel remained a firm human rights activist all his life, working globally in support of voices like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and most recently China’s Liu Xiaobo. His belief that it is a moral commitment to community to speak up, participate, and work for civil rights, to speak truth to power—that totalitarian regimes are repressive but so are our own fears in standing up against them— is a powerful reminder of the responsibility, as he put it, we all have for each other.

The following are some of his words, still inspiring and compelling, delivered on New Year’s Day in Prague 1990, just three days after becoming president of Czechoslovakia:

For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die earlier than in most other European countries…..

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly….

…We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all – though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts.

……I think there are two main reasons for the hopeful face of our present situation. First of all, people are never just a product of the external world; they are also able to relate themselves to something superior, however systematically the external world tries to kill that ability in them. Secondly, the humanistic and democratic traditions, about which there had been so much idle talk, did after all slumber in the unconsciousness of our nations and ethnic minorities, and were inconspicuously passed from one generation to another, so that each of us could discover them at the right time and transform them into deeds.

… Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.

…Our main enemy today is our own bad traits: indifference to the common good, vanity, personal ambition, selfishness, and rivalry. The main struggle will have to be fought on this field….

You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems — human, economic, ecological, social, or political.

The most distinguished of my predecessors opened his first speech with a quotation from the great Czech educator Komensk_. Allow me to conclude my first speech with my own paraphrase of the same statement:

People, your government has returned to you!

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2 Responses to Vaclav Havel’s high moral purpose

  1. ClaireMcA says:

    Great post and thanks for sharing the speech, moving indeed.
    I’m reading about Aung San Suu Kyi at the moment currently in the chapters about her father (Aung San) who was also a significant influence in bringing change to a people who sought independent rule.
    Havel may not have remained an enduring influence, but how great and appropriate that it was a humanist who lead the change and shared these words, we need more like him in leadership.

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